The Writer’s Diet

Over on Twitter I signed up to participate in a Teaching and Writing project where members sign up to read and tweet about books using #PhDSkills. I completed my first book, Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, with a lengthy thread. Here I want to jot down some thoughts, most of which is reflected in the linked thread.

Sword pitches The Writer’s Diet as a fitness routine for writing, meant to inspire long-term change through straight-forward advice and exercises. She divides the book into five chapters that tackle five common flaws in (academic) writing: “zombie nouns” (nouns made from adjectives or verbs), “be” verbs, excessive preposition use, excessive adjectives and adverbs, and using “it,” “this,” “there,” and “that” indiscriminately without attention to referents or precision. Each chapter comes with a series of exercises to draw the reader’s attention to these mistakes, to expand his or her vocabulary, and to otherwise improve writing. Similarly, each chapter comes with both positive and negative examples, making it clear that while these are pitched as rules there are exceptions when an author breaks the rules with a specific effect in mind. Shakespeare comes up a lot in these examples.

Reading The Writer’s Diet gave me flashbacks to high school English, but also improved my writing. The advice is not complicated, but it is hard to execute. It works here, though, because you read the book because you want to improve your writing and reading the book forces you to write more mindfully. Certainly as I tweeted about the book I noticed that I paid more attention to my syntax and word choice than usual.

The accompanying test is a useful diagnostic tool that I had some fun with over the past week. I ran a portion of my own writing through the test each day, including two articles published in 2018, my book proposal, a conference paper, and the chapter I’m revising right now. The test is a blunt instrument and every day I found some words that the algorithm swept up that I would have forgiven for one reason or another, but on the whole it provides a snapshot of the words you are using in a given piece of writing.

The elephant in the room about The Writer’s Diet is the overarching metaphor. Sword has fun with her writing and like in Air & Light & Time & Space, she creates an overarching metaphor for the book. In the other book it was a house. Here it is fitness and the body. The fitness part of the metaphor is fine, as is the diet, but when it comes to the test in particular there is a sense of body-shaming your writing. The best writing is lean, the second best is fit and trim, then needs toning, flabby, and heart-attack. Fits the theme, yes. Unnecessary, also probably yes.

The Writer’s Diet is a short, cheap, and effective writing guide, but my lingering sense upon completion is that there are others, including her Stylish Academic Writing, which I have not yet read, that provide as much or more without this glaring flaw.

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The Writer’s Diet is the first book I tweeted about for this Teaching and Writing Group, but is not the last. I signed up for at least one more book, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, in mid-January.

I must admit that I have only intermittently been following along with the hashtag, but the founders of the group Naomi Rendina and Gregg Wiker have done yeoman’s work putting the thing together. The main cause of my inattention (other than Twitter and being busy) is that a number of the books have been about dissertation writing—an experience behind me and not to the point where I am advising anyone on the process.

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.

Pedagogy in the Humanities – a reading list

On the list of things I don’t really have time for, but want to do anyway, is spend more time reading about the mechanics and craft of teaching. I am particularly interested in issues of course development and planning, active learning, student engagement, and assessment. I sent out a tweet for book suggestions and in the first couple hours it was posted more people boosted the signal through retweets than suggested bibliography, though suggestions did begin to trickle in.

It has been about twenty four hours since I sent out that request; here is my reading list so far:

  • Ken Bain, What The Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004)
  • Peter Brown at al., Make It Stick (Harvard 2014)
  • James M. Lang, Small Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2016)
  • Marc C. Carnes, Minds on Fire (Harvard 2014)
  • Jay Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass 2015)
  • L. Dee Fink Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass 2013)
  • Susan Ambrose, How Learning Works (Jossey-Bass 2010)
  • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (Routledge 1994)
  • Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Fiona McHardy (edd.), From Abortion to Pederasty (OSU UP 2015)
  • John Gruber-Miller (ed.), When Dead Tongues Speak (Oxford 2006)

Jay Dolmage, Universal Design: Places to Start, Disability Studies Quarterly 35 (2015)

BU Proseminar in Classical Pedagogy, resources curated by Dr. Hannah Čulík-Baird.

This list will be updated. Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.